Most clients and advisors are acutely aware of the value of a thoughtfully designed estate plan that provides for the eventual disposition of a client’s tangible and financial assets. Despite this, even the most carefully constructed estate plan often overlooks a client’s digital assets.
In today’s society, almost all clients are active online, and may have substantial digital assets with both sentimental and monetary value even if they do not realize that this is the case. Without a clear plan that specifies the client’s wishes, however, both state and federal laws can create roadblocks to accessing digital assets—making it critical that the client include digital assets in any comprehensive estate plan in order to ensure an orderly post-mortem disposition that carries out the client’s wishes.
Uniform Laws Governing Digital Assets
The concept of estate planning for digital assets actually covers an extremely broad range of online assets, ranging from email accounts and social media to PayPal, domain names, intellectual property stored on a computer and virtual currency. While some of these accounts are likely to have only sentimental value, domain names, blogs with advertising and business contact lists contained in email accounts can have monetary value, as well.
Without a clear estate plan contained in legal documents, data privacy laws can prevent the online service provider from allowing the client’s executor or family members to access his or her online accounts. The Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which has been passed in most states, provides that an owner of digital assets can specify who will be able to access and dispose of any digital assets after death.
Absent proper planning, the online provider’s terms of service agreement (TOSA) will often control what happens to the account after death. In some cases, this TOSA can even override the client’s specifications that are contained in a will or other document, especially in cases where the service provider provides specifications as to how the account owner can make his or her post-mortem wishes known.
For example, Google provides an “inactive account manager” function that allows the account owner to specify what should happen to the account after it has remained inactive for a period of time. The account owner can list beneficiaries who will be notified that the account will be closed before it is deleted, giving beneficiaries time to download any content contained in the account.
It is important to remember that the instructions the client leaves in his or her online service provider’s tools will trump instructions left in the will, so it is important to include this document among those that should be regularly considered and updated.
An Action Plan for Digital Estate Planning
After a client determines who should be allowed access to his or her digital assets after death, it is important to takes steps to ensure that the heir is able to access the relevant data. Importantly, the client’s will, trust documents and other legal documents should specify a digital fiduciary or executor who will be able to access any given digital asset after death, and should also provide that individual with the ability to reset or recover the client’s passwords.
In order for such a plan to be effective, the client should be advised to make a comprehensive list of his or her digital assets during life, which should also include instructions as to how the appointed person can access those assets after death. To facilitate easy access, the client should list usernames, passwords and the security questions associated with the account password. This information should be stored securely, but should not be included in the client’s actual will, which can be accessed by the public after death.
Depending upon the type of digital assets involved, clients may find a virtual asset instruction letter valuable in their digital estate planning. This letter sets forth all relevant information as to digital accounts and assets to allow the digital fiduciary access (or instructions that certain accounts should be deleted).
Clients should also be advised to regularly back up their digital assets on the cloud or another device, both to protect those assets from a device malfunction but also to allow easier post-mortem access to a digital fiduciary.
A client’s digital estate plan will vary in complexity depending upon the type of digital assets involved. Many clients may be unaware that their digital assets hold monetary value, so it is important that the advisor discuss disposition of digital assets with all clients, even those who do not initially foresee the need for digital estate planning.